Decision time for the RCA

This week is an important one for the future of graphic design in the UK, writes Michael Johnson, as the RCA interviews candidates to run its Communication Art and Design course. But with CA&D a decade old, has Art proved too much of a distraction from Design?

This week is an important one for the future of graphic design in the UK, writes Michael Johnson. The Royal College of Art, the world’s only post grad art and design school, interviews the shortlist of candidates to run its Communication Art and Design course. But with CA&D a decade old, has Art proved too much of a distraction from Design?

This course emerged over ten years ago when its now retiring head, Dan Fern, combined the illustration and graphics courses. On the surface, Fern’s legacy is a series of world-famous alumni who have pushed the boundaries of their chosen specialisms, and there’s no denying that every two or three years the course supplies perfectly formed groups of designers and illustrators ready to reach for new heights.

Groups like Graphic Though Facility, the Why Nots and Fuel. Designers like Jonathan Barnbrook and Daniel Eatock, illustrators like Sara Fanelli … all RCA alumni. But everyone in that list graduated over a decade ago (some of them two decades) and the list of greatest hits has seemed a little threadbare since. RCA graphics graduates now seem to aim lower, are happy to knock out a few interesting typefaces, maybe do the odd leaflet or book for an art show, or a poster for the Tate. Many fall into teaching, either at like minded colleges or the RCA itself.

As one well known ex-student commented to me, “in recent years I’ve struggled to get excited by the RCA Communications shows”, and that view is shared by many.

Taken in isolation, some of the shows have been intriguing, but when surrounded by incredible work on display elsewhere this department has sometimes seemed overshadowed. The architecture show is always guaranteed to make you question the world we live in. The world’s car designers are snapped up immediately by manufacturers, and immediately start work on the world’s next cars. The product and textiles shows are always an eye-opening advertisement for two more years of post graduate thinking surrounded by the best of the best.

The key issue that has distracted the course for decades has been ‘art’. Communications graduates have been at pains to present their work within the context of white walled galleries, not grubby old commerce. Work has often been presented as ‘work in progress’, never finished. The ‘process’ has become the king, not the problem to be solved.

With the movement of the ‘real art’ departments to the Battersea site, this art-lite stance will become even harder to maintain, and feels increasingly at odds with the other design departments which view their industries as essential and valued partners, not hated adversaries.

The roots of this was the self-immersion/self expression phase of British design prevalent in the nineties, fuelled by then-zeitgeist collective Tomato. This found an eager audience in South Kensington. Rightly or wrongly, a collection of part-time tutors were gathered to support the course with performance, video art, experimental film and art specialisms. Coupled with the merger of the traditional disciplines, the ground was laid for a new generation of crossover graphic artists to bloom.

But they haven’t. By all accounts the department is just as silo-ridden as it ever was. If you don’t believe there’s an art bias, just a brief interrogation of the department’s website reveals that of the dozen or so current MPhil and PhD students, the vast majority describe themselves as artists (and only two as graphic designers).

In the meantime, the better undergraduate courses like Glasgow, Kingston and St Martins* (in the UK) have successfully incorporated these ‘conceptual’ leanings into their courses, whilst still producing graduates capable of the basics of craft and typography. Students from these courses may not glean much more from two more years at college, apart from more room to experiment, and have often chosen simply to start work and get on with their lives.

Courses such as Brighton’s have managed to show that it is possible to run graphics and illustration courses together and have produced some genuinely intriguing work in the process. As a contrast, LCC (itself now resolutely anti-commerce) has aligned itself strongly to the RCA’s new mission, supplied coach-loads of graduates to the course as a result and revels in their new position as the RCA’s ‘feeder’.

Meanwhile, post-grad courses are the only growth area left in education and are springing up on a monthly basis – soon the ‘MA in design’ might be as ubiquitous as an ‘A star at A-level’. In short, there’s a lot of competition and the RCA needs to clarify exactly why a student should spend two more years there. At present it’s pretty blurry, apart from avoiding a recession-hit industry just a little longer and the undoubted kudos of those letters after your name.

And this resolutely anti-commerce stance has begun to grate. Even some of its most famous alumni like Daniel Eatock need the support of a Big Brother project to stay fiscally stable. As the country inches out of recession, surely now is the time to leave ‘art’ to the highly qualified ‘proper’ art departments and look elsewhere for inspiration.

So, where next exactly? Everyone’s hope is that a ‘name’ graphic designer will put themselves forward, with both a vision for the course and a coherent plan of how to stay a ‘name’ if three days a week (if not more) is to be spent firefighting in Albertopolis. Conversely, since it is still seen as the plum job in design education, several well-known educationalists will have put themselves forward.

They will be undoubtedly be able to prove their committee-hardened targets-and-teaching nous, but might struggle to present themselves as the next Dumbar or Birdsall, previous professors on the course who may not have lasted long but brought much that desired status to the course.

Where the new head will stand on online media and the convergence of disciplines will be crucial – if the course is to stand as a living, breathing figurehead of creative communications that understands art but isn’t beholden to it, then surely some digital savvy will really help. The industry also looks to it as a guide through the critical aspects of design, and design theory.

But this doesn’t mean to say that retreating into textbooks, ‘research methodology’ and ‘critical discourse’ is the answer – you could argue that over-theorising has got it into this mess and what it needs now is some timely, 21st century problems for its students to solve, not another essay to write. Just a glance at the work of the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Foundation shows what designers can achieve when they apply their minds to issues, not to art.

Most simply wish that the course would remember how to communicate again, not obfuscate. And to rediscover its ambition – RCA graduates shouldn’t be happy with a typeface and the odd museum poster, they should want to redesign the museums themselves, from the ground up.

Perhaps the last word should go to one of its current students: “I think what it boils down to is that there is an unbelievable amount of talent in one place on Communication Art & Design at the RCA, and I think the new head needs to have a clear and exciting vision on what to do with this raw material.”

Absolutely. We wait with interest.

Several students, tutors and alumni gave their views for this piece, but most requested anonymity, which has been respected.

*For reasons of disclosure, Michael Johnson has been an external examiner at Glasgow for four years and is currently in his fifth year at Kingston in a similar capacity. He also teaches and occasionally lectures at LCC and has previously taught at St Martins. He was also on the original re-validation committee for the RCA CA&D name change in the 1990s.

This article originally appeared on Michael Johnson’s Thought for the Week blog. Johnson is creative director of johnson banks.


Design Week reports that a shortlist of candidates is being interviewed for the position today. They understand that the seven candidates include Research Studios’ Neville Brody; critic Rick Poynor; Atelier Works’ Quentin Newark; illustrator and head of Kingston’s School of Communication Design Lawrence Zeegen; St Martins tutor Andrew Haslam; designer Cornel Windlin; and designer/writer William Holder.

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